Melting Glaciers and Sinking Cities

Melting Glaciers and Sinking Cities

Joshimath is a Himalayan town situated in Uttarakhand. It is located on a hill slope, and sits on the debris of an old landslide, at an altitude of 6,151 feet above sea level. The small town is the gateway to revered Hindu and Sikh shrines and a popular stop for trekkers and skiers drawn to nearby slopes when it snows. It is one of the four cardinal institutions established by Adi Shankacharya. However, this holy town, which is the gateway to the Char Dham yatra undertaken by the pilgrims, has been in the news for an unfortunate reason. It is reported that the hill town has sunk up to 14 cm.  Slow sinking of land up to 9 cm in Joshimath town has been recorded over seven months, between April and November 2022, according to an  Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) satellite-based report.

What is alarming is that between December 27, 2022, and January 8, 2023, the intensity of land subsidence increased and the town sank further by 5.4 cm. Though such signs of sinking have occurred in 1970, the scale of damage seems to be greater and far more impactful this time. According to a few reports more than 500 houses in the region have developed cracks. It is also concerning to note that the shivling in the Shankaracharya Madhavashram Temple has also developed cracks. Authorities seem to be clueless about the cause behind this erupting natural disaster or a man-made disaster, primarily because of their lackadaisical approach in addressing the issue when the land subsidence started to occur 9 months ago.

Local residents have also noticed muddy water emerging from the cracks in multiple locations. Joshimath has been one of the primary locations to bear the consequences of climate change. The 2021 Joshimath floods, which led to the death of 80 people, was caused due to the melting of a part of the Nandi Devi glacier. The consequences of the 2021 floods were so far reaching that its effects are seen even in 2023. 

The state government officials had informed the central team that the crisis in 2021 got aggravated after the floods. In 2021, a survey had recommended the evacuation of the Raini village, as their report found that the village was vulnerable and required slope stabilisation to keep it from subsiding further. However, no action was taken to facilitate the rehabilitation of the residents of the village. In its report in 1976, the Mishra Committee had elaborated that Joshimath was situated on an old landslide zone and could sink if development continued unabated, and recommended that construction be prohibited in Joshimath.

Despite this, hotels and restaurants have mushroomed everywhere. The pressure of population and the size of the crowd of tourists has also increased manifold. Despite such repeated warnings, no stringent measures were taken to prevent the onset of such a crisis that would lead to the destruction of scores of livelihoods in the region.

Sinking of Joshimath also means that the Jyoti Matha, considered to be an abode of principles and vision set by Adi Shankaracharya for Hindus across the globe, would also be destroyed. In order to save Joshimath from sinking, the state government needs to act fast. Immediate rehabilitation of those who have been affected by the crisis and those who are bound to be affected, needs to take place. There must be a complete ban on construction activities in the region to ensure that there is no additional pressure on the land in the region. The state government must undertake a massive replantation drive in the region to ensure that the groundwater and the soil are firmly held together. Apart from this, slope stabilisation must be undertaken in all vulnerable areas by the state government. An elected government in a democracy is not merely a crisis solver but a caretaker. An astute amalgamation of government action and public participation in providing solutions will ensure that India always stands first.

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Chinmaya Udghosh